I am incensed that the next Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is Joel Leftwich, the former top lobbyist for PepsiCo Inc. He’s also been a top executive with DuPont. He may be a fine fellow, but I sense a conflict of interest. “Sense?” It’s a stink you can smell 10 miles away.
Anyone who has walked the snack and beverage aisles in a supermarket or convenience store (and that means almost every American) knows PepsiCo’s brands: many are salt-, sugar- and fat-laden convenience/processed foods with taste-tempting chemical-laden formulas. Their marketing campaigns make them very very hard to resist unless you’re well-schooled in how to eat healthy, whole, unprocessed foods.
And now PepsiCo’s former Senior Director for public policy and government affairs team (translation: lobbyist) will most likely lead the effort to rewrite the federal child nutrition policy as staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee headed by Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).
As Marion Nestle says in her excellent blog Food Politics:
Clearly, agricultural policies affect public health in highly prominent ways. That’s why we need to do a much better job of connecting food policy to health policy. And that’s why having a leading PepsiCo lobbyist in charge of agricultural committee staff raises serious concerns about conflict of interest.”
In case you’ve forgotten who-makes-what in American mega-food corporations, PepsiCo’s website proudly trumpets its “22 iconic, billion-dollar brands. These are the flagship food and beverages that make us uniquely PepsiCo.”
What they call the “flagship iconics” is a Who’s Who lineup of snack foods: 7up, Tostitos, Lay’s chips, Pepsi sodas, Doritos, Cheetos, Ruffles, Mountain Dew, Gatoraides...
All have contributed to making millions of Americans sicker and fatter.
(To be fair, PepsiCo also owns Quaker Oats and other “good for you” brands, and has made strides in environmental sustainability.)
But...virtually everything PepsiCo makes and markets is in a bag, box or a can. It baffles me that one of their top executives can simply hop a fence and move into a senior staff position on a committee that influences the health of millions of children.
I’ve always been for the “little guy,” and in my own lifetime I remember well when finding a single small health-food store in many cities was impossible. Today the parents, educators, chefs, small food companies, organic farmers—the entire cadre of those who know that food must be simple, whole and good for you—are still at a disadvantage against corporations that can spend millions to influence our nation’s agricultural policies.
It reminds me of watching my grandchildren play soccer. They were good at it, but how would they, and all of us on the sidelines, have felt if the following scenario took place:
Imagine your child on a soccer team that’s about to play in a tournament. Anyone would expect the tournament director to be fair and unbiased, “leveling the field” by matching teams with players of similar ages against each other, and creating a set of tournament rules and pairings that give each team an equal opportunity to do their best.
And yet one team, bigger, older, stronger than all the rest happens to be the same team that the tournament director used to coach.
Yes, you would worry. Perhaps a biased director might further weight the tourney in favor of this team so it can plow through all opponents on its way to the championship. Or perhaps the opposite might happen: the director would bend over backwards to prove there was no favoritism.
Whichever the case, the bottom line is this: the whole situation could have been avoided if the tournament had chosen a director whose lack of bias was clearly evident.
That’s what the committee’s Chairman Senator Pat Roberts could have done. He did not.
OK. Game on. The little team is getting crunched. But we’ll fight back, despite everything being against us.
If we don’t, the 2015 dietary guidelines are going to ignore the connection between obesity and drinking soda.
If we don’t, sodas will continue to be purchased with SNAP-EBT, rather than shoppers opting for essential, nutritious foods.
If we don’t, food labeling will be weakened.
If we don’t, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, now under attack by the food industry and its cronies in Congress, will be eviscerated.
Still, I’m betting on the little guys. We believe in prevention, and it’s time we had our place at the table.
For more background and commentary on Leftwich and his move to the Ag, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, see:
- Some Thoughts about the Revolving Door via Marion Nestle's Food Politics
- Chairman Roberts Announces Selection of Key Agriculture Committee Staff via U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry
- No conflict of interest here: PepsiCo lobbyist to help rewrite nutrition policy for children via Daily Kos
- Former Pepsi Lobbyist Will Help Overhaul School Lunch Program via Mother Jones
- Will Former Pepsi Lobbyist Now At Dept. of Ag Continue Taxpayer Subsided Diabetes? via Capitol City Project